Friday, 17 May 2013

The Once and Future Scriptures - Truth and History (pt 3)

This post continues my look at The Once and Future Scriptures edited by Gregory C Jenks. Here are my thoughts on the into and first chapters and on the second chapter. This post will be dealing with the next chapter.

Steven Ogden - Chapter 3 Wisdom as well as Facts
The Story Rings True
After a retelling of the Parable of the Lost Son Steven asks the question if it was true. Rightly he points out that it is not historical but then asks "if the story is not historical, does this mean it is not true?" (p 44). Steven can not dismiss the parable as "simple because there is a lack of corroborating empirical data" (p 44). A minor concern I wonder about is what Steven would think if after he watched a Star Wars movie. Was there really a Death Star that was destroyed by the Rebels?

Ogden then turns to John 1:1-18 and looks at the claims that are being made about Jesus and points out that "'the Word' in the text does not relate directly to the Jesus of history" and that "the doctrine of the Incarnation itself, even in its earliest forms, cannot be subjected fruitfully to the scrutiny of historiography" (p 44). I will just point to my last post which mentions Ignatius, 1 Clement and Athenagoras who said Jesus was God, and I would also like to add in what Pliny the Younger said to emperor Trajan sometime before 113 AD reporting that the Christians worshiped Jesus "as a God". So much for historical evidence...

Ogden contrasts Christian fundamentalism with progressive bible scholarship. One is circular and "the Bible is used selectively to support truth claims" the other carefully measures the Bible against the historical empirical evidence (p 45). Ogden lines himself up with the progressive position (p 45). With the progressives, the Lost Son parable is not true because there is no historical evidence. I would contend that the Parable of the Lost Son is not true because it is a parable as the text says it is. I'm pretty sure fundamentalist could have worked that one out as well, because the text says it is.

An Old Problem Revisited
Odgen looks at a debate between historical methods between Tillich and Rahner. Tillich said that the historical search for Jesus had failed and that the "'Christ-event ' was actualized by faith through human participation; it was not captive to the particulars of historical research" (p 46). Rahner sided with modern scholarship and that our exegesis was determined by our dogmatism so we only find things from within that context (p 47). Personally I side with N.T. Write who said that we know about Jesus through faith and history.

History Has It's Problems
Ogden points out that orthodox and progressives rely too much on history (p 48). I agree there are issues with how historians weigh and interpret the facts of history and agree that we shouldn't end up saying that "facts cannot be established and it is all a matter of alternative readings" (p 48). Ogden, leaning on Carr points out that the historian is himself part of history and so his (or hers) findings need to be understood in their own context (p 48). This line of thinking then goes further with Scott and Oakeshott and reconstruction of historical events become contextual and truth statements are hard to make.

I agree that history, or more accurately historical methods, and reconstructions have their issues. Back in 1910 George Tyrell accused Adof Harnack's reconstruction of Jesus as merely his own reflection at the bottom of a well. Since then, that is the accusation of most historical reconstructions, that the historical finds Jesus in their own image. According to McKnight Marcus Borg found Jesus to be a mystical genius; John Dominic Crossan found Jesus to be a cynic and N.T Wright found Jesus to be an end-of-the-exile messianic prophet. But despite these reconstruction short falls, I still think we can know things for certain from the historical records that we have.

What is Truth?
Odgen then says "The concept of truth is complicated" (p 50) which is a simple statement that is true... The modern search for truth has it's limitations, and so when it comes to truth a better way is to present a coherence experience But again "experience is hard to define" (p 51). For this chapter Odgen defines experience in two ways, the first "is the objective sense, for example, sociological information the the Jewishness of Jesus" the other is "the subjective sense" (p 51). So experience is both objective and subjective. To me this seems like the word "fact" has been pushed into "experience", even though there are shortcomings with "facts" to do with context and agendas, I don't think we should mash that into the word "experience" because it is subjective. Who gets to decide which part of experience is objective and which part is subjection?

This definition allows Odgen to say that "just because a disciple, a gospel writer or an early theologian thinks something is true, that it is true" (p 52) because their writings come from an experience. Then reducing the cannon of scripture Odgen says that experience can range "from Paul to Augustine and beyond, but real epidemiological clout comes from contemporary, corporate, intersubjective experience" (p 52). Historical writings, including the New Testament are objective and subjective, but the real weight of it's objectivity and subjectivity comes from our modern surroundings... So much for timeless truths. Everything current has more clout than that of the past. Too bad for us that Jesus was 2,000 years ago. That's a problem.

A Working Epistemology
Ogden then sets up a working model of epistemology (p 52) and in this "truth claims are not made here in absolute terms; they are expressed in terms of probability" (p 52-53), and so then I wonder if that sentence was absolutely true or not. I think I know what Steven is saying, as we are not dealing with an exact science (p 55), but history. However, as a Christian I wouldn't go on to call our knowledge of God in terms of probability. Luke writes his gospel so that Theophilus would have certainty in what he has been taught (Luke 1:4). The letter of 1 John is all about how we can know the truth (1 John 2:21), know that we have eternal life (1 John 5:13), know that the Son of God has come and that we can know Him who is true (1 John 5:20) etc... Yes, this certain knowledge comes from faith (through the Holy Spirit), but that faith is still grounded in real/actual historical events.

Ogden talks about incremental or cumulative nature of acquiring knowledge (p 53) and I agree. On a larger scale you see this in the Old Testament with hints, and signs, and prophecies about Jesus, but nothing is that clear. Only after Jesus had come can we see that the Messiah was also the Suffering Servant. That Jesus was the one the law and the prophets were talking about. All our knowledge is built upon previous knowledge. At the end of this section Odgen says "In our context, wisdom is more than just a simple bit of direct experiential evidence" (p 54) and again, I agree. Wisdom should be the application of knowledge. As DeYoung said once (and may have incorrectly been attributed to me somewhere): "doctrine is like blood: its meant to help you live. If you just store it up and collect it, you are weird (and you might not be invited to parties)".

Ogden correctly points out that there are issues with how both the fundamentalists and progressives interpret the Bible (p 54). I agree. The fundamentalists may read a text separate from it's context and genre, which may lead them to think the Prodigal Son was a real person. The progressive may read through the text and wonder if Jesus actually told the Prodigal Son parable in the first place (as Odgen suggests later p 57).

Ogden talks about the second and third quest for the historical Jesus and the link with the modern mind for certainty (p 55). He then points out that the progressive movement "has much to offer" but "is constrained by a limited view of history, epistemology, experience, and hermeneutics" (p 56). Odgen contends the Parable of the Lost Son is significant "because it rings true with shared human experience" (p 56), which I would say is the attribute to any good story, fictional or true. For the prologue of John's Gospel, we shouldn't be reading it a just empirical knowledge, but use it to build upon our existing knowledge or experience (p 56).

Ogden again wrestles with with the the Parable of the Lost son. He ask if it is 'just' a parable to which he says "The answer is 'yes' and 'no'" It is a parable, but it not just a parable "simply because there is a lack of evidence" (p 57). This is confusing, as I think the Parable of the Lost Son is a parable, but a parable which has a point. The lack of evidence of the events in the story has no bearing on the point of the story. It does "ring true with experience" (p 57) which is because it is a good parable, that is one of its tasks. Ogden then asserts that the parable didn't come from Jesus' lips but from an early church's community (p 56-57).

Returning also to John 1:1-18 Ogden says that the truth of this also has to do "with the wisdom of a particular faith community" (p 58). He said this is based off an early hymn but it is not about the "historical description of Jesus of Nazareth" (p 58) but show how faith communities build upon wisdom of a historical figure into a living tradition. The fact that John 1 is read on Christmas Eve in an Anglican service "does no prove the doctrine of the Incarnation, but it rings true with the faith community" (p 59).

I think a balance is needed between historical studies and the Christian faith. We need to realise that all writings have an agenda and are biased, including the text in the Bible. This agenda is already an interpretation of events, so as Christians we should need to readjust it's content, instead we should read it on its own terms. The issue of reading through a text to come up with the real Jesus, or a fifth Gospel, is that once you remove bits and create a new reconstruction, it can not be proved. We should work with the evidence (the text) we have.

But history can be helpful in shedding light on the text we have. It also helps faith from becoming fantasy and from possible Docetism. The Christian faith makes historical claims about the person of Jesus, and to lose His humanity, would lose the essence of Christianity. However history can only reveal what the earlier followers thought of Jesus, faith is also needed for a personal view of Him as the Christ.

I think I have said enough on this, I could go on, but I have started quoting myself from an essay I wrote in 2010 on how we know Jesus through both faith and history...


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